Due to its location in the middle south of the country, Montevideo is the perfect jumping off point for day trips around Uruguay. Both Colonia del Sacramento and Punta del Este can easily be reached by driving only two hours. Many of the country’s wineries are an hour or less away from the capital, and some of the best hiking, horseback riding, and enigmatic architectural sights are surprisingly close as well.
Atlántida: The Resort Town with Eccentric Architecture
Named after Atlantis, the mystery of the resort town of Atlántida lies not in its pine-tree lined beaches, but in its architecture. Here the light of the midday sun plays with the undulating walls of brick laminate, colored glass, and apertures in the tower of the church of Cristo Obrero Parish, a kind of spiritual poetry. El Aguila, an eagle head-shaped structure on the beach, watches the ocean as families picnic beneath its beak. Many legends surround the stone bird: the site of a cosmic energy center, a Nazi spy observatory, and a smuggler's den are the most popular ones. Further down the coast, the golden Art Deco castle rises from the sand in the form of the Planeta Palace Hotel.
Getting There: From Cuidad Vieja, take the Rambla to the Interbalnearia route (IB) until you reach Atlántida (one hour).
Travel Tip: Visit the Aguila first, as it’s located slightly before Atlántida in Villa Argentina.
Bodega Artesana: Vineyards and Wine Tastings
The woman-run winery of Artesana produces Uruguay’s most famous red—tannat—along with cabernet Franc, merlot, and the country’s only zinfandel. Take a tour of the entirely hand-farmed vineyard on the 80-acre estate, then do a tasting on the winery's terrace. Choose from the picada (appetizer) option with five pours, or the full lunch with a six-course tasting menu. Their on-site chef cooks over a wood-fired grill, serving juicy entraña (skirt steak) and huesito caracú (crunchy gaucho-style bone marrow). A boutique winery, it only caters to groups of visitors of 10 or less, meaning you won’t get the larger crowds from cruise ships present in other wineries.
Getting There: From Cuidad Vieja, take the Rambla northwest to Route 1. When you come to Paloma, continue on Route 5. Take a left at Route 48 and continue until you reach Artesana (45 minutes).
Travel Tip: Hire a driver or have a designated driver. Uruguay has a zero-tolerance policy for drinking and driving.
Sierra de las Animas: Hike and Swim
The Sierra de las Animas are a set of mountain ranges containing some of Uruguay's highest points. One of the most popular hikes, Pan de Azucar, rises 1,387 feet (423 meters) and can easily be trekked in two and a half hours. To visit Pozos Azules, a group of natural swimming pools only accessible with a guide, book a hike with Red Animas. Other options include zip-lining above the forest and hiking to a permaculture vegetarian restaurant, Casa Arrayana. The mountain range is named for the indigenous Charrúa people. If you do an evening hike, look out for the glow of strange lights on the mountainside, said to be the souls of Charrúas buried here.
Getting There: From Cuidad Vieja, take the Rambla east, then cross over to IB. Continue until you can turn right to Sierra de las Animas (1 hour and 35 minutes).
Travel Tip: If you hike Pan de Azucar, go up the stairs of the 114-foot concrete
cross at the top for the best view from the hill.
Casapueblo: Hear a Sun Ceremony
The Uruguayan artist Carlos Páez Vilaró spent 36 years building his 13-story seaside abode of gleaming white stucco and cement. Constructed without using a single straight line and perched on the point of a rocky outcrop above the sea, Casapueblo has a whimsical feel. Walk its maze of hallways and see galleries of Vilaró’s work and biographical exhibits. Buy reasonably-priced prints of his paintings in the gift shop, and book a massage at the spa. Finish by attending the Sun Ceremony. Everyone gathers on the terrace to watch the sunset over the water and hear a recording of Vilaró reading his farewell poem to the sun.
Getting There: From Cuidad Vieja, take the Rambla east to IB. Continue until you reach Punta Ballena and veer right on Carlos Páez Vilaró. After about 5 minutes, Casapueblo will be on the right.
Travel Tip: Eat lunch at Lobo Suelto, a food truck just before Casa Pueblo. Order the chivitos (steak sandwich), organic salads, or the fish of the day.
Playa Penino Nature Reserve: Go Horseback Riding
In the Santa Lucia Wetlands, the Playa Penino Nature Reserve contains hills, beaches, forests, and half of the varieties of birds native to Uruguay (which is quite a lot). To see it, book a horseback ride with Centro Ecuestre y Cabalgatas Macondo, a riding school located within the reserve itself. Keep an eye out for woodpeckers, herons, and pampa finches as you trek through the forests, then feel the sea breeze on your face as you ride on the shore. Rides can be several hours long or full-day excursions, some of which end with a meal and a swim in a pool.
Getting There: From Cuidad Vieja, take the Rambla northwest to Route 1. Follow it until you reach Cuidad de la Plata, then turn left at Calle 14. Turn right at Calle 5, and drive half a mile to the reserve (30 minutes).
Travel Tip: Go between December and April, the time of the year when Macondo offers the most rides.
Nueva Helvecia: European Architecture, Cheese, and Chocolate
Also known as Colonia Suiza (Swiss Colony), this town was settled by Swiss, French, Italian, and German immigrants in the 1800s. The settlement became famous for its artisanal cheese and chocolate, which can still be purchased today in shops like Nueva Granja Suiza Margarito-Angélica and Extrablatt. Explore the ruins of Molino Quemado, an old hydraulic mill, and the nearby railway bridge. See the distinctively European architecture of the old houses and the two neighboring churches. Finally, drink a beer at the Cerveceria Suiza, the brewery on the main square (Plaza de los Fundadores) which also contains the flower clock.
Getting There: From Cuidad Vieja, take the Rambla northwest to Route 1. Follow it for 72 miles, and turn right on Route 53. Nueve Helvecia is 3 miles down the road.
Travel Tip: Nueva Helvecia's Bierfest in December is one of the best times to visit, when live music, liters of beer, lumberjack contests, and traditional Swiss dancing overtake the town for a multi-day celebration.
Isla de Lobos: Dive with Sea Lions
Five miles off the coast of Punta del Este sits Isla de Lobos, home to a colony of more than 250,000 sea lions. Though the island is a prime whale-watching spot, its main attraction is diving with the sea lions. Descend to a depth of about 16 feet (5 meters) to experience this, and dozens of curious sea lion adults and pups will play with you, swim around you, and even snort in your face. Trips with Scuba Divers Uruguay run on weekends during the summer (December to March) when water conditions allow.
Getting there: Take the Rambla east to IB. After about 60 miles, turn left on Av
Chiverta. Turn right onto Bvar. Artigas, then take the fourth exit at the roundabout. Continue on El Mesana and Scuba Divers Uruguay will be on the left (2 hours).
Travel Tip: Those who can't dive can snorkel with the company Dimar Cruises.
Colonia del Sacramento: A UNESCO World Heritage Site
This small city’s historic quarter is a UNESCO World Heritage Site of cobblestoned roads, sprays of flowers, classic cars, and colonial Portuguese-style houses. Stay in town exploring the old quarter, the city’s eight museums, and the lighthouse or head to one of the surrounding estancias for horseback riding and grape stomping in harvest season. Other nearby sights include the ruins of a bullring at Real de San Carlos and the Museo de las Colecciones in Granja Arenas, containing impressive collections of pencils (numbering 10,000), matchboxes, keychains, and more.
How to Get There: From Cuidad Vieja, head northwest on the Rambla to Route 1. Take Route 108 for 108 miles until you reach Colonia del Sacramento (2 hours and 25 mintues).
Travel Tip: The supermarket by the port sells funky socks, a great cheap souvenir.
Punta del Este: A Swanky Coastal Town
The swankiest city on the coast, Punta del Este is a mix of night clubs, pristine beaches, jetsetters, yacht club members, and artistic endeavors. See its famous hand sculpture, "La Mano," rising from the sand at Brava Beach or lounge on a daybed as a DJ spins at Bagatelle Beach. Check out its many art museums like the Ralli Museum with modern and contemporary Latin American art or the Pablo Atchugarry Foundation’s sculpture park. Walk around the port to see sailboats and yachts glide by and eat one of the many restaurants with beautiful views of the ocean.
How to Get There: From Cuidad Vieja, take the Rambla east until you can cross over to IB and continue until you reach Punta del Este (2 hours).
Travel Trip: Expect very high prices from November to March. If you want to save money, pack a picnic lunch and spend all day at the beach.